Office for Fair Access
The Office for Fair Access (OFFA) is an independent public body that is intended to safeguard and promote fair access to higher education. It approves and monitors 'access agreements'. All English universities and colleges that want to charge higher fees must have an 'access agreement' with OFFA.
The Higher Education Act 2004 introduced the concept of variable tuition fees for the first time. Whilst some parts of the United Kingdom, most notably Scotland, did not implement top-up fees, most universities and higher education institutions (HEIs) in the United Kingdom are in England and are thus under the new regime.
That regime allowed HEIs to charge tuition fees of any amount from £0 to £3,000. (These caps were raised in 2010.) At the time this policy was being debated there was considerable concern that the amount of debt new graduates would be faced with could dissuade some potential students from entering higher education altogether. Thus, as part of the debate, the Government of the United Kingdom decided to institute a body to oversee the introduction of fees to the extent of ensuring that such dissuasion did not occur. The Act established OFFA and gave it the power to prevent a HEI charging fees above £1,200 if it could not satisfy the regulator that it would make adequate provision for widening access and encouraging participation.
For the academic year starting September 2012, the amount that institutions could charge increased to £9000, subject to approval by OFFA.
OFFA states that it has three core aims:
- To support and encourage improvements in participation rates in higher education from low income and other under-represented groups
- To reduce as far as practicable the barriers to higher education for students from low income and other under-represented groups by ensuring that institutions continue to invest in outreach and financial support
- To support and encourage equality of opportunity through the provision of clear and accessible financial information for students, their parents/carers and their advisers.
These aims are primarily delivered through implementation of approved access agreements, and OFFA's work in monitoring access agreements and disseminating their view of good practice.
An access agreement is a document setting out how a university or college charging higher fees intends to safeguard and promote fair access to higher education through its outreach work, financial support etc. It also includes targets and milestones, set by the university/college itself.
OFFA defines a bursary as a cash award where the student’s eligibility is either wholly or partially dependent on their assessed household income. This is separate from a scholarship which it defines as an award where eligibility is not dependent on the recipient’s assessed household income. For example, some universities and colleges offer scholarships based on academic criteria or whether the student lives in the local area.
Before 2012-13, universities and colleges who charged higher tuition fees had to give a minimum bursary to students entitled to receive the full state Maintenance Grant or Special Support Grant. In 2011-12, the minimum bursary was £338 although in practice, most universities and colleges gave much more than the minimum bursary – the typical bursary given to students on the full Maintenance Grant in 2011-12 was around £900 a year. Students who started their course in 2011-12 or before must continue to receive a minimum bursary.
From 2012-13, following Government changes to student finance, there is no minimum bursary. Lower income students may be eligible for support under the new National Scholarship Programme.
Charges often made against OFFA are that it levels down rather than raises standards and that it replaces one form of unfairness with another as reforms are being achieved by "disadvantaging" the brightest children.
- Variable tuition fees (also known, inaccurately, as 'top-up fees')
- Higher Education Funding Council for Wales
- British universities
- Higher Education Act 2004
- Tuition fees (UK)
- Media criticism: 'Mediocrity'
- Media criticism: 'Social engineering'
- Media criticism: 'Disadvantaging the brightest'